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Identifying children at risk of developing mental health problems : screening for family risk factors in the school setting

Dwyer, Sarah Blyth (2002) Identifying children at risk of developing mental health problems : screening for family risk factors in the school setting. PhD thesis, Queensland University of Technology.


Children's mental health problems are a significant public health concern. They are costly to society in both human and financial terms. This thesis contributes to the 'science of prevention' by examining issues related to the identification of children at risk of mental health problems. In particular, it was of interest to determine whether 'at-risk' children could be identified before the development of significant behavioural or emotional problems. Three areas were explored: family risk factors that predict the development of children's mental health problems, teachers' ability to identify family risk factors, and parent- and teacher-report screening methods.

Data were collected from the parents and teachers of over 1000 children in preschool to Year 3 as part of the Promoting Adjustment in Schools (PROMAS) Project. Parents and teachers each completed two questionnaires at two time points, one year apart. Parents completed the Family Risk Factor Checklist - Parent (FRFCP) and the Child Behaviour Checklist (CBCL) and the equivalent instruments for teachers were, respectively, the Family Risk Factor Checklist - Teacher (FRFC-T) and the Teacher Report Form (TRF). The FRFC-P and FRFC-T were original to the current research and were designed to assess children's exposure to multiple family risk factors across five domains: adverse life events and instability (ALI), family structure and socioeconomic status (SES), parenting practices (PAR), parental verbal conflict and mood problems (VCM), and parental antisocial and psychotic behaviour (APB).

Paper 1 investigated the psychometric properties of the FRFC-P and the

potential for its use at a population-level to establish community risk factor profiles

that subsequently inform intervention planning. The FRFC-P had satisfactory test-retest reliability and construct validity, but modest internal consistency. Risk assessed

by the PAR domain was the most important determinant of mental health problem

onset, while the PAR, VCM, and APB domains were the strongest predictors of

mental health problem persistence. This risk factor profile suggests that, for the

studied population, the largest preventive effects may be achieved through addressing

parenting practices.

Paper 2 examined teachers' knowledge of children's exposure to family risk factors using the FRFC-T. While teachers had accurate knowledge of children's exposure to risk factors within the ALI and SES domains, they had poor knowledge of children's exposure to risk factors within the PAR, VCM, or APB domains - the types of risk factors found in Paper 1 to be the most strongly related to children's mental health problems. Nevertheless, teachers' knowledge of children's exposure to risk factors within the ALI and SES domains predicted children's mental health problems at one year follow-up even after accounting for children's behaviour at the first assessment.

Paper 3 investigated the potential of both the FRFC-P and FRFC-T for identifying individual, at-risk children. The accuracy of the FRFC in predicting internalising versus externalising disorders was compared against behavioural and simple nomination screening methods. For both parents and teachers, the behavioural screening methods were superior, however, the simple nomination method also showed promise for teachers. Both parents and teachers were more accurate at identifying children at risk of externalising mental health problems than children at risk of internalising problems. The performance of the FRFC and simple nomination methods in identifying children for selective interventions, before the development of significant behavioural or emotional problems, was also tested. Both the FRFC and simple nomination methods showed only modest predictive accuracy for these children.

Combined, the results suggest that while on the one hand, the FRFC is useful for population level screening to inform intervention planning, on the other hand, it falls short of achieving good predictive accuracy for individual children. Future research should investigate ways to optimise predictive accuracy for individual children, particularly those at risk of developing internalising disorders. One option may be to use the FRFC in conjunction with behavioural screening methods. The challenge is to develop accurate screening methods that remain practical to complete at a population level. Finally, this body of research provides insight into the feasibility of offering selective preventive interventions within the school setting. While significant obstacles remain, there were several promising indications that using screening methods such as FRFC-T or simple nomination, teachers may be able to identify children earlier on the developmental pathway, before significant behavioural or emotional symptoms have developed.

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ID Code: 15903
Item Type: QUT Thesis (PhD)
Supervisor: Nicholson, Jan & Sanders, Matt
Keywords: childhood insanity, mental health problems, at-risk children, screening methods, preventative interventions
Department: Faculty of Health
Institution: Queensland University of Technology
Copyright Owner: Copyright Sarah Blyth Dwyer
Deposited On: 03 Dec 2008 03:52
Last Modified: 28 Oct 2011 19:40

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